Earlier this year, the media was full of stories recognizing and educating Americans about the Tulsa race massacre. Although the destruction of Greenwood (or Black Wall Street) was a particularly horrifying instance of racist violence, it was far from isolated. Many other Black communities were destroyed in the early 20th century. Eight years before Tulsa, Black farmers owned land and built homes and churches in Forsyth County, Georgia, near Atlanta. Many were barely scraping by, but some were quite prosperous. And then, after two white women were attacked (and one eventually died), the white community set fire to Black residents’ homes and churches and “Night Riders” patrolled the area, threatening any Black residents or landowners who tried to stay.
Patrick Phillips, the author of Blood at the Root, moved to Forsyth County when he was still in elementary school in the 1977. And the community was still all white. Phillips was told stories about the history, and his family were even among the handful of white Forsyth residents who joined a protest march in 1987, but he didn’t learn the details until much later. This book tells the story.
Phillips describes the attacks on the two white women that led up to the violence, making clear how little evidence there was against the men eventually identified as the guilty parties. No surprise there to anyone who has read much about racist violence in this era. He also discusses the tension between the legal system and the community’s desire for immediate judgment in the form of lynching. One man was lynched, and two others were tried, convicted, and executed in public. No other guilty party was ever found, but the story Phillips tells makes clear that these deaths were not the result of careful investigation and weighing of evidence. And, what’s more, these deaths were not enough.
Most of the book is devoted to the events of 1912 and the immediate aftermath. But he also spends time on the more long-term effects, such as the many decades when Black people knew not to pass through Forsyth County, the total lack of a Civil Rights movement in Forsyth because there were no Black residents, and the years of silence about what happened until the 1980s. When activists sought to bring the events into the light in 1987, the reaction was, sadly, predictable. The people of Forsyth claimed to have no objection to Black people in general, but they had a right to keep their community white if they wanted to, and they certainly didn’t want their community to become like Atlanta, a “rat-infested slum.”
Black people did gradually start to move to Forsyth. Phillips speculates that many of the first to do so were from elsewhere and didn’t know the history. They were just looking for a good home in a prosperous Atlanta suburb. Still, when this book was published in 2016, Black people made up only 3% of the county population. The county had more Asian (8%) and Latinx (10%) residents than Black ones.
I think a lot of white Americans, at least of my generation, were taught about racism in America, even in the relatively recent past, but for some reason, stories like this, of mass violence and community dissolution didn’t get told. I tended to learn more about arcane rules that were often presented as inconveniences and indignities or, perhaps, isolated acts of violence by a few bad actors. It’s important, though, to know that it was bigger than that. It sickens me to know that there are people out there who do not want stories like this to be told. But it is only by knowing these stories that we can understand how these things happen and have a chance of stopping them from happening again.